June 2011


Following on from part 1 – notes of the introductory discussions, a series of speakers filled the rest of the day.

First was Claire Melamed from ODI. She introduced herself as a technology optimist, but pragmatic about the challenges and importance of realising benefits for everyone. She spoke about the rollout of mobile phones and how they fit the poverty reduction picture. Benefits include: more efficient ways of doing what people are already doing, and doing new things. She quoted a statistic that is already probably out of date, that a 10% deeper spread of mobile leads to 1% economic growth.

But, she then said that as we were likely to spend the rest of the day hearing about the amazing possibilities and opportunities offered by new media, she felt she should be the voice of gloom (or was it doom?!) She listed the huge challenges facing Africa:

  • geography – the continent is vast, and mobile coverage is still small
  • literacy – rates are climbing, but slowly
  • money – even if mobiles are getting cheaper, there is still a cost – and she quoted a contact as saying that an MPESA transaction costs the same as a bag of maize – so some people still face difficult choices

However, she also drew some important conclusions for what needs to happen, and perhaps a role for government: markets cannot do this on their own – incentives are needed to reach remote areas, other interventions such as cash transfers and education can encourage spread, and finally (definitely a role for government) they can step in to regulate competition. Governments have a key role in making sure benefits are spread. She ended on a positive note: now is the time to do something about this – so that we dont sit here in a couple of years talking about the huge problem of digital exclusion.

One follow up question was whether anyone knew examples of telecoms sharing infrastructure, as this can help spread availability. The example quoted was of Helios towers – known examples of tower sharing in Nigeria and South Africa.

Next to speak was Faith Karimi, CNN news editor. She spoke about how social media has revolutionised news coverage. She said that ANY big story will have a social media tie in – but stated that social media shapes coverage, rather than determining it.

At CNN, a service filters and distils online coverage three times a day and sends an overview to editors. If an issue is being talked about, that might influence them to run a story, even if that had previously not been planned.  Twitter is a good starting point for them – eye witness accounts of events mean the journalists get to hear about it, but they will always verify before broadcast.

She listed the benefits of social media as being eyes on the ground – especially in places where there was no bureau, an elimination of middlemen – both sources, and in a few cases, in official response. She mentioned that the governments of  Rwanda and South Africa are both active on social media – providing a quick response when issues break.

She was asked who the audience of CNN Africa was – the west of Africa itself? She responded that common feedback is that the west does a bad job of portraying Africa, and CNN does try and reach out, especially to a younger audience. She mentioned a scheme they support to encourage and promote african journalists.

Finally she emphasised that verification is an issue. Social media might trigger a call, but they wont use what you say unless they can verify it.

Next up was Alan Cocks,  billed as an Ubuntu software advocate. I’d go a step further and say he was an enthusiast. He extolled the benefits of using Ubuntu, confirming that money is made not from selling the software, but from selling services. He also made the point that it can run from a memory stick, thus meaning it can work on computers even if they dont have a functioning hard drive.

Ubuntu fan

Ubuntu fan

Elizabeth Ford gave an introduction to the Guardian Global Development site. She described its status as a work in progress (something that really should apply to all websites!) and talked about the lessons the team had learned from the Katine project, which was their partnership with AMREF to chart the development story of a village in Uganda. The Global Development site is funded by the Gates Foundation and its aim is to move away from the ‘Africa as victim’ story and show the full and diverse reality of life in developing countries. She talked about issues around community participation – especially for people new to online fora. Examples from Katine included how surprised some were by the aggression of some commentators. Global Developent does offer lots of opportunity for comment and debate, but she said perhaps it is a ‘nicer’ space than the ‘comment is free’ space. Nevertheless, there will always be people spoiling for a fight! Following the examples set by the BBC team earlier, and what is known about Frontline SMS radio (detail to follow later in the afternoon) perhaps their next development might be to expand the platform to invite interaction via SMS or calls.

Two speakers followed: Alex Reid from the Gates Foundation and Carolina Rodriguez from the Africa Progress Panel. They both have a focus on policy and advocacy work, and talked about their use of social media to get a consistent message out. My colleagues worked with the Gates team during the recent GAVI pledging conference – and our main theme from that event was that if planning starts early enough, so people have time to share each others plans and unique descriptors can be agreed, then at the time of the actal evant or announcement, you can achieve much wider and deeper coverage, as people see that consistent approach. It was also nice to see they had used an example of their collaboration with us in their presentation.

Carolina Rodriguez presents

Carolina Rodriguez presents

My photo is a bit fuzzy, but their example showed how they produce content to reach different audiences, from the general public to development specialists and policy makers, and the example I mentioned is a blog post Bill Gates wrote that we published as a guest contribution to our development debates section of the DFID bloggers community. One comment that resonated with things we are discovering is the power of infographics. When trying to convey complex figures or concepts to busy people, a clever visualisation to catch their attention and draw them in is worth many carefully constructed statements.

The discussion whic followed built on a comment that there is a sense of talking to ourselves, or talking in a bubble and there were questions around how to bring in non-traditional participants. One strongly worded comment was “innovation cannot come from the people who are part of the problem – we need to ask new people to contribute”. Carolina though gave a powerful reply in saying that the voices of extremely senior people suc as Kofi Annan, even if no longer in power, are valuable in ensuring issues are covered in the media. They can be used as a megaphone, so it was important to get specific concerns onto their agenda, and ensure they were thoroughly briefed.

Change of pace and style next to Linda Raftree  – and the first presentation of the day to provide a real sense of activity on the ground in Africa (es, before I get reminded, The BBC Africa have your say team is definitely working in Africa, but it somehow had a more familiar, polished, corporate feel). Linda works with Plan USA and the project is being implemented in Mozambique, Kenya and Cameroon – she focused on the latter. It aims to support youth empowerment through media – and she told an interesting story of how what was perhaps assumed at the start wasn’t necessarily what was ended up with. It wasn’t a project about seeking funding, the local councils had resources, but the community – and in particular young people – were not involved in how it was spent. The first activity was to map their community, which they first did in a traditional way with pen and paper, then teamed up with some experts in digital mapping to capture a rich picture of the things the participants deemed important to decision making: not just where the schools were, but how many children enrolled, how many girls/bys, how many teachers, and not just how many hospitals or clinics, but how many nurses, what kinds of diseases were prevalent etc.

Then, once they have collected that evidence, young people are encouraged to use that to advcate what they need. They also talked about issues that perhaps adults didn’t know, or knew, but didn’t want to talk about, such as drug use or rape. They are given encouragement and support to document their concerns through video interviews, or, when dealig with sensitive subjects, through artwork or drama. This collected evidence and ability to influence policy decisions is truly empowering.

During the questions that followed, Linda also described an example of  something that happened in Kenya. The group of young people there were encouraged to use an online space to debate government policy.The group also took some of that space to comment on and criticise Plan – which is something an organisation needs to accept when empowering people to use these channels.

Tami Hultman was introduced next. She is one of the co-founers of AllAfrica.com a news aggregator which takes content from local papers throughout Africa and is one of the largest sites with news from, for and about Africa. It has existed since the early 90s and is now nearly self-sustaining through advertising and royalty revenue. Their traffic is fairly evenly split between the US, Europe and Africa, with the latter just haveing taken the larger share. A new venture is MyAfrica, which has not been promoted, but already has thousands of inputs. One example is when they had the opportunity to interview President Obama before his visit to Ghana, and they invited people to submit questions. They received hundreds (and also some valuable audience data, as to submit a question, people had to fill out a form).

Gemma Ware presented Africa Report, which is a traditional printed publication that also now has a web presence. They do not yet make use of social media, and are watching the developments at the Guardian with interest. Their aim is to stimulate debate, and the format of a monthly publication means they focus on high quality analysis rater than breaking news – although their web presence does allow for more immediate reaction.

The penultimate speaker was Kevin Anderson, a journalist who has previously worked with the BBC and the Guardian. He spoke about some training he did last year with Al Jazeira journalists (and yes, he agreed that was very timely!) and introduced the formula: information – noise + content = accurate reporting. Social media is noisy, so don’t try and amplify everything. Its more important to use it to identify contacts and key people around an issue, then work with them. He talked about how creative people can be, especially in situations like those across North Africa at the moment – using audioboo when broadcasting is disrupted, licensing content through creative commons, plus all sorts of ways of getting around barriers – such as the slang evolving in China to get around firewalls, and in Syria, people burning files onto CDs and physically sending them over the border to AL Jazeira journalists. He talked about a kiosk set up in the capital of Moldova, were people were encouraged to come and literally write their concerns onto the walls. These were later transcribed and published on the web. In Poland, where internet use tends to be dominated by the under 25s, the views of older people are gathered by printing forms in newspapers. He enthused about the social side of social media – building a social experience around ANY media channels.

When asked a question about how to protect people – again, in the sort of situations Al Jazeira journalists find themselves in, and he talked about using closed facebook groups, or skype to talk with contacts.

The final individual speaker was Sharath Srinivasan, one of the founders of Frontline SMS radio \~/ This took me back to the first Africa Gathering meeting I attended, where I first heard about Frontline SMS \o/ This latter product has been downloaded over 16,000 times, and it allows people to turn a laptop, phone and modem into a push hub for SMS/text communications. It has many uses – constrained really only by peoples imagination. Uses include monitoring drug availability in the health sector, price monitoriong in the agriculture sector, or job advertising. It has spawned a whole community of parallel products: Frontline credit, Frontline legal and Frontline learn (I was too slow to record their logos!) but the aim of Frontline SMS radio is to turn radio interactive. How? – local stations can use it to communicate with listeners, who are invited to submit a question or comment via text. The presenter receives the text in a large font for imediate use if needed. Texts can also be tagged and sorted, adn stored for future use (eg to pose as questions to a later visitor). Its useful for live polling – graphics can be generated and simple yes/no results used easily in the context of a programme. Sharath is part of a research programme running in Cambridge, and talked a little about how they are investigating how social media impacts on engagement in public debate and how it can change citizen/state relations.

And on that final note, I was left to reflect how while this is a meeting to focus on questions and issues that relate specifically to Africa, several times during the day I was struck how the questions raised were equally valid here at home. This last one in particular made me think – we are all really at the beginning of this period of change. Perhaps some have done more investiation and experimenting than others but we all have a long way to go.

Africa Gathering QR code

Africa Gathering QR code

UPDATE: Kevin Anderson has blogged his session, and Linda Raftree has shared her thoughts – both posts are worth reading – and emphasise how much was packed into that day.

New timing (Monday instead of a weekend) and new venue (The Guardian at Kings Place instead of a variety of academic lecture theatres) but the programme for this years Africa Gathering promised as inspiring glimpse of innovations from Africa as ever.

Africa Gathering 2011

Africa Gathering 2011

This year the theme was social media, and I guess unfortunately that might have constrained some of the presenters.  While there were lots of interesting ideas discussed and good ideas described, for me, what I have really enjoyed from previous events has been the deluge of examples of all sorts of innovation – and this time, while there were flashes of that, there were also more theoretical sessions about social media – and most presenters took us through what they were doing in that space. While this was interesting, it didn’t provide the range I had been looking forward to.

Thats a minor niggle though – as I hope the following notes show, there was a lot covered during the day.

First session was in the form of a workshop, introduced by Alex and Myriam from the BBC Africa Have your say radio programme.  They use all channels available to gather feedback as part of their programme making – they seed ideas and also source topics online, and invite people in to answer questions posted by the public. They also talked about how to broaden their inclusion – eg how to give a voice to people who may not have internet access to participate.  Once they are made aware of an issue via whatever means, they do send out freelancers or stringers who can visit villages and talk to people.  They also talked about how difficult it can be to find the right people to talk to from official channels, to provide a balanced view or response to questions. They have had some success in finding people via social media, eg the policeman who was able to give them some useful numbers to ring.

One interesting question posed was whether they have seen the emergence of hubs – for example when there are groups of people without net access, does the one person in a village who may have a mobile become a source or gathering point for others. They didn’t have evidence of this, but one correspondent did say that he was using their programme as a trigger to teach friends and others about social media in general – so perhaps there are many as yet un-tracked consequences.

We were all invited to discuss our thoughts around the question: how do people find out about what matters to them? Groups then fed back,  and it was clear there had been wideranging discussions.  Issues included:

  • the need to raise general awareness – social media literacy is low
  • projects like iHub Kenya are interesting – could that model be useful elsewhere?
  • the importance of empowering young people
  • the importance of connections – put pilot projects in touch with each other – they will often reach solutions based on shared problems and challenges
  • the value of social media in humanitarian response (and there are of course many blog posts, reports and articles already about this!)
  • social media and the feedback/interaction it stimulates is a way of finding out that someone is actually listening to you
  • while mobile is undoubtedly spreading widely, people’s primary use is (not surprisingly) for their own immediate needs – they wouldn’t necessarily know there were wider issues to get involved with
  • the role that corporates could play in opening up access
  • building on the idea of hubs as physical presences, to look for human hubs – key leaders who people trust (someone later mentioned iChiefs and iPriests) – find people who are already respected and listened to and give them the tools and training
  • the challenges of moving beyond comments on a forum, which is often a closed conversation, and how that virtual debate can be turned into action

One thought that occurred to me – there is no cause for complacency here in the UK, many of the thoughts expressed above in relation to Africa are valid here (maybe not to the same degree, but valid nevertheless). We hear talk of the digital divide, we have the race online initiative, and online advocacy and participation in democracy may be growing, but is still relatively small.

One final thought-provoking comment which came up several times through the day, was the fact that much of African culture is still rooted in the oral tradition – not so much about writing which forms the basis of much interaction via social media. Alex (BBCAfrica) commented that while many of his first contacts may come via twitter, SMS or facebook, they often quickly progress to “call me”. My response would be that in no way is any invitation to participate online intended to replace that tradition – but my belief is very much in the social side – people like to find other people like themselves – similar interests, similar concerns. Social media enables you to reach way beyond the communities you would previously have had access to – thus finding more people to talk to. In particular, if you have a niche issue or question – whether it be medical, social, agricultural or other, the web can bring answers and solutions that simply were not possible in the days of just talking to your neighbours.

The session ended with a roundup of ideas, including:

  • make space for the market. If a business can be convinced that there is a market for a service, then they will often deliver an appropriate solution (this was expanded by a later speaker, but I agree there is a germ of truth here)
  • it is important to understand the purpose of communications initiatives – the ones that meet peoples needs can be supported, shared and encouraged
  • look at ways to give specific groups the motivation to engage – is it a question of new platforms, or showing people the benefits of sharing and engaging
  • strong feeling that people should decide for themselves – but I firmly believe that there also needs to be catalysts – its hard when people want to carry on as they always have, and simply dont know that something completely different might be possible. Innovation might spring up in surprising places with no apparent trigger – but sometimes it needs help.
That ended the open discussion and we moved on to a series of speakers. Africa Gathering  part 2 follows.

Went to see a presentation of the recent report from Transform: Digital Maturity Index 2011. Previously focused on how private sector businesses were adapting to oportunities offered by the web and social media, this year they also interviewed people across the public sector, and were able to draw some interesting comparisons.

One anecdote that stuck with me was a comment from one of the researchers, about how a business he works with (no names, but I think it might have been in the telecoms sector) is now making an awareness of digital a primary factor in their recruitment process. This doesn’t have to be evidenced by something the applicant has done in a work role, it could be a hobby or voluntary activity, or simply the fact that they have an established online persona. Once this is proven, suitability for their role within the organisation comes next – whether it be in sales, business analysis or technical.

It struck me that if we are to achieve digital by default* across the public sector, it could really start to become completely second nature if a similar approach were to be taken with new recruits.

* the oft quoted description for the aim that services will be designed first to be delivered online, with the intention that the majority will be able to use them, and only then will alternatives be worked out for those who for whatever reason cannot.